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Alastair Galbraith - Morse/Gaudylight / Talisman

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Artist: Alastair Galbraith

Album: Morse/Gaudylight / Talisman

Label: Xeric

Review date: Oct. 8, 2006

Throughout the 1990s, the Xpressway label was one of the skeleton keys to the under-underground. Liberated from the shackles of New Zealand’s Flying Nun label, who at some point in the 1980s shifted from human-as-guitar pop aesthetes to big-budget little-return chart-mongers, Xpressway stood as moral arbiter of the NZ scene, releasing cassettes and the occasional 7” single and farming their artists out to overseas labels in a divide-and-conquer tactic that was borderline licentious. And, just as every good community needs its lovably cranky ideologue (Bruce Russell), its home-studio perfectionist (Peter Jefferies), and its drunken-sailor feral guitarist (David Mitchell), so it needs its artisan songwriter: Alastair Galbraith.

Galbraith had come through the earlier release-‘em-then-flee Flying Nun era, with two 12” singles as The Rip to his name, the first a post-Buzzcocks shot in the arm, the other a perfectly hazy wedge of primitive acoustic folk. By the second single Stormed Port, Galbraith had cottoned on to the home-recording aesthetic championed by Jefferies, which more-or-less stood as the template for subsequent recordings, such as the Hurry On Down cassette and the super group Plagal Grind 12”, whose line-up featured Jefferies, Mitchell and The Rip’s Robbie Muir).

But it was left to Philadelphia label Siltbreeze, whose Tom Lax first championed Russell’s group The Dead C stateside, to commit to Galbraith’s first full-length, Morse, which was predated by the Gaudylight 7” EP. These records represent refinements of both the broader Xpressway aesthetic (true fidelity, emancipation from dictatorial song form) and Galbraith’s songs, which renounced the sentence and worked firmly within the ellipsis: fleeting, allusive and cryptic. He mined his songs for their emotional core and de-prioritised full disclosure, instead opting for lyric and strum action that wept across the page like spilt blood from psychic wounds.

It recently struck me that Galbraith’s mode of translation/encryption takes similar liberties with song as Paul Celan did in his translation work, that of reducing to essence: as Celan’s best translator John Felstiner puts it, ‘conditional turns into imperative’. On 1995’s Talisman, though you can hear the influence of the Xpressway cabal’s shift to free noise on blowouts like “Mrs Meggarty” and “Policemen On Ether”, Galbraith mostly makes-spectral his songs, with each snippet a distillation of a peculiar kind of ache or celebration, all the while caught in a liminal structural zone between miniature and mantra. And though many plump for Morse as Galbraith’s defining work, Talisman is closer to the man’s spirit, casting off the anger that runs through his recordings-to-date. (His subsequent album, Mirrorwork, which is my personal favourite, is due for reissue by Xeric, along with its successor Cry.)

These were huge records for me, and though I was late to the party - I didn’t encounter Galbraith until, I think, 1993 - they’ve been massive presences in any definition-of-personal-aesthetic I’ve engaged in during subsequent re-hauls of my musical thinking. Would that they had been afforded the same genuflection by Xeric: these reissues are shoddily packaged, reducing Galbraith’s gorgeous artwork to a small inset on the front cover, and including several fluffs in the mastering process (“Iron Tender” appears twice, and sometimes the sharp edits that connect songs on Morse are sloppily calibrated). Thankfully, Dusted contributor Bill Meyer ups the ante with some typically concise and revelatory liner notes.

The extra songs are uniformly fantastic, including an unreleased live track by The Rip recorded in 1982, four songs from the Plagal Grind era, one song from Stormed Port, assorted compilation tracks and the Intro Version 7” from 1994. But I can’t help but feel Xeric should have gone all out for Galbraith: reissue the world-beating Plagal Grind EP in its entirety (as it is, we’re still missing “Starless Road”, “Receivership”, and their rendition of Morse’s “Vincent”); make all of Stormed Port available; collect the now-unavailable tracks/recordings from the two versions of Hurry On Down. But ultimately, unlike many reissues these days, which dive to the bottom of the psych/folk/rock/etc barrel to collect the last scraps for contextualisation and then on-sell to jaded hipsters stuck in an aesthetic cul-de-sac, the re-availability of these Alastair Galbraith records is a sweet toot on a horn which should never stop blasting.

By Jon Dale

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